Commentary on Passage

In Passage 3 also there is no use of 'I', and again we seem to know nothing about the writer as a person. We might have to turn to the title page of the book to find out that she is a woman. However, the passage is written from a feminist perspective; for example, it uses the term 'sexual politics' in the first section and the whole passage is about the sexual politics of the family. Although there is no 'I' character or even a sense of an individual writing, we are presented with a strongly expressed perspective on the family as a place of 'struggle' for Elizabeth Barrett. We might assume that because it is a feminist text this means that the writer is a woman, which is in fact true, but of course it need not be the case. But a particular point of view obviously comes from somewhere - and someone. Interestingly, there are two 'writer characters' in this passage - the author character, who is not expressed as 'I', and Elizabeth, who appears as the 'I' writer of her diary, where she conveys her experiences and feelings strongly: 'My past days now appear as a bright star glimmering far, faraway and I feel almost agony to turn from it for ever!' In this diary there is not even a sense of commentary and distance from her own experience as there was in Passage 1. However, the writer of the passage creates this distance from Elizabeth's experience by her selection from and commentary on it. Like much academic writing, she is writing about what another writer said. Although Elizabeth's story is presented as interesting in its own right, it is mainly used as an 'example' of how family sexual politics works, rather like the case study in Passage 2.

This writer comments on Elizabeth's feelings, and does not say what her own are. Yet her use of Elizabeth's very personal diaries does invite the reader's sympathy. Her language also seems to be coloured by that of Elizabeth's strong feelings. Compare the writer's 'she . . . was consumed with envy of her previously beloved brother' with Elizabeth's 'I feel almost agony to turn away from it for ever!' This writer has made it clear that she has taken up a position in her thinking about Elizabeth as an example of how women have been at a disadvantage in education and self-expression. She does not appear in the passage directly but she is clearly there as a slightly ghostly presence, with strongly held views.

Passages 2 and 3, then, are examples of how the writer seems to have found a place in her writing even when she does not appear directly in it. In other kinds of writing the writer seems to be more distanced from her material - for example, in an account of a scientific experiment or a report. Here are two examples, but remember that even these conceal the writer:

The present study was undertaken to determine how C. albicans contributes to this lethal shock synergism . . . Because C. albicans and endo-toxin share a number of characteristics . . . candidal infected mice were examined for induced TNF.

(Berkenkotter and Huckin 1995: 55)

In the state sector there was no difference in average A-level points score at single-sex and co-educational comprehensives, but the familiar pattern did show up among the grammars. The few remaining grammar schools had by far and away the best performance of state schools and that is where single-sex education is still mainly to be found. Of the 310 singlesex state schools, 35.5 per cent are grammar; of the 1600 co-educational schools, only 2.3 per cent are.

(Smithers and Robinson 1995: 4)

In summary, then, in academic forms of writing it is unusual for the writer to appear directly and, even when she uses the first person, to appear merely as an observer and commentator, impersonally and at a distance from her material. This may be what it looks like to an outsider. However, as we have explored, you yourself as a writer may know better. You know why you may have chosen to write about a particular topic, what your interest is in it and how much of yourself you have put into it, even when you are writing about what other writers have said. The following activity asks you to think again about your place in your assignment.

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